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“I Simply Did a Mash-up”

Margaret Atwood in conversation with Michael Enright

Margaret Atwood and Michael Enright

Margaret Atwood sat down recently with Michael Enright at an event for supporters of the Literary Review of Canada. For more than a half-hour, they talked about the digital world, the origins of The Handmaid’s Tale, the early days on the book promotion circuit, and even garter belts. These are excerpts from their conversation.

Michael Enright: You wrote a wonderful essay, many wonderful essays, but one of them you called “Three Mortifications”.

Margaret Atwood: Oh, yes.

Enright: And in it you talked about how difficult it was early in your career when you went to book signings. Tell me what happened in the men’s socks and underwear department of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Edmonton.

Michael Enright and Margaret Atwood.

Photograph by Louie Palu

Atwood: Well, it was my first novel and my first public book signing, and it was the publicist’s first week on the job. It was Edmonton and it was 1969. So, for some reason, she thought it would be a good idea to put my table with my book called The Edible Woman in the men’s sock and underwear department. I think the reason for her decision was that it was near the escalator. The thinking was that people going up and down on the escalator would see me sitting there, but that is not what happened. What actually happened was that all the men who’d come in at lunch hour to buy their jockey shorts, and remember it was November in Edmonton, so they were wearing their galoshes—do you remember galoshes?

Enright: Absolutely.

Atwood: So they came in to get their socks and underwear and they saw this young person sitting there with a book called The Edible Woman. And you could hear the galoshes going off in the other direction. They ran in their galoshes.

Enright: How many books did you sell or sign?

Atwood: Two.

Enright: Two?!

Atwood: Yes. Yes. And I am not even sure how those two happened.

Enright: I think we have to talk about The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood: Do we?

Enright: Yes. A movie, a TV series, an opera.

Atwood: And a number of satires.

Enright: It’s extraordinary. Could you talk about the gestation of it? You started thinking about it in Berlin?

Atwood: A little bit before then. But I started writing it in Berlin, on a rented German typewriter. It’s a good thing I can’t type [because] it had a German keyboard where the letters are in different places, so people who really can type make a lot of mistakes under those circumstances. But, if you have to look [at the keyboard] like me, then you don’t make so many. I started then in Berlin in 1984. The Wall was still up, and every Sunday the East German air force would make sonic booms just to remind us that they were there. But I had been thinking about the book before that time. Three things went into it. Number one: The United States of America did not begin as a democracy; it began as a Puritan theocracy of the seventeenth century.

Enright: A male Puritan theocracy.

Atwood: Well, if you say Puritan that’s kind of implied.

Enright: I guess. I wouldn’t know a thing like that.

Atwood: No, you wouldn’t. You were at St. Michael’s College down the road.

Enright: Please. I was at home all the time. Number two…

Atwood: Yes. Number two: The background that I had in utopian and dystopian novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which I’d been reading for a very long time, and a number of which are so obscure that people generally have not heard of them. But I’d always wanted to attempt such a thing myself, only this time with a female narrator. Generally they’d featured male narrators, who—as a rule—observed that in the future women would be more scantily dressed than they were in 1880.

Enright: What is the difference between speculative fiction and science fiction?

Atwood: Just a second. I haven’t got to number three.

Enright: I thought you had.

Atwood: No, no. In the 1980s when Ronald Reagan came in, there was a pushback against some of the things that had come in during the 1970s, including the second wave women’s movement. I believe that if people talk or write about something they would like to do if they had the power, then if they get the power they will actually do it. And they were talking in the 1980s…

Enright: You said that there’s nothing in that book that human beings have not done.

Atwood: That’s correct. I invented nothing. I simply did a mash-up.

[Questions from the audience]

Audience member: Thank you so much for your contribution to Canadian literature. My question for you is: You are such a prolific writer of dystopias—do you consider yourself an optimist about the human condition?

Atwood: Well, no. About the human condition itself, I’m not particularly optimistic, but I’m not pessimistic either. I think we still have a chance to save ourselves from extinction. By the way, trees will be fine under the new dispensation of low oxygen once the oceans die. But we will not, because the oceans make sixty to eighty percent of the oxygen we breathe. So, first of all we’ll get very stupid. As you know, we’ll be like people up on top of Mount Everest without an oxygen tank, and then we’ll have a lot of traffic accidents because our brains will have slowed down, and then everything will grind to a halt because we won’t be able to do anything. Of course, we may have invented self-regenerating robots by that time. And then they can take over. But really, I would advocate a different path, which would be regenerating the oceans while we have a chance to do that.

Margaret Atwood is the author of many novels, poetry collections, children’s books, graphic novels, and works of non-fiction.

Michael Enright was the host of The Sunday Edition and The Enright Files on CBC Radio One from 2000 to 2020.